In response to the dialogue surrounding Minari, Viet Thanh Nguyen asks what makes a language foreign in this op-ed for The Washington Post.
The Hollywood Foreign Press Association, which runs the Golden Globes, has decided the movie “Minari,” from director Lee Isaac Chung, will compete in the foreign language film category. This is despite the fact that Chung is an American director, that he cast American actors and that “Minari” takes place in the United States (Arkansas, in fact).
Yes, much of the dialogue is in Korean. But this decision speaks powerfully to the issue of what makes something — a language or a person or a culture — foreign.
What languages can be considered American? Can anyone who primarily speaks a language other than English be considered American? Like my parents: They came to the United States in 1975 as refugees from Vietnam and became citizens in 1984. It’s true they conducted most of their lives in Vietnamese: All their friends were Vietnamese, they attended Mass in Vietnamese, and they spoke only Vietnamese at home. But they knew enough English to buy property, build businesses and pay taxes. After their second return trip to Vietnam in 1994, my father said, over Thanksgiving, “We’re Americans now.” They never returned to Vietnam after that. After 45 years in the United States, with their still-imperfect English, are they still “foreign?”
One could argue that just because a language is being called “foreign” that does not mean the person speaking it is also being called “foreign.” This might be true if the speaker is White in the United States. But to many Americans, someone who is of Asian descent might seem “foreign” if they speak another language, or speak English with an accent (or sometimes, if they speak it with no accent at all). It would be willfully race-blind not to see, and hear, that English — perfect English — often has associations with whiteness, just like “America” itself has associations with whiteness.
The association of the United States with English runs deep, even if it has no official language. Yet the U.S. has always encompassed many languages, from Native languages to European languages to Asian and African languages. Across the country, songs are sung, books are written, newspapers are published and radio and television shows are broadcast in all these many languages. Anyone who has grown up in an “ethnic enclave,” from Cuban Miami to Vietnamese Orange County, knows the vibrancy and potency of these communities stems from the bonds of language — the words used to exchange gossip, share stories, conduct business, host celebrations. When do these languages stop being “foreign?”
That’s why the foreign language classification for “Minari” stings. If, hypothetically, Steven Spielberg were to make an epic about the Jewish immigrant experience and script much of it in Yiddish, he could probably persuade the HFPA to consider his movie an American story, and rightly so. The only difference would be that Spielberg is powerful and undeniably American, and Chung is a young filmmaker of an Asian-American background, and Asian Americans have historically always been seen as foreigners in this country, even if they can trace their roots back to the 1800s or earlier. If Yiddish is an American language — and I think it is — then why not Korean, spoken here by Korean immigrants since the early 1900s, or Chinese, spoken here by Chinese immigrants since the 19th century? How many cartons of takeout Chinese food, made by Chinese Americans, do Americans have to eat before Chinese is not foreign? How many signifiers of the heartland — the family’s home in the Ozarks, their church attendance, Steven Yeun’s character’s reverence for the dirt and determination to be a self-made man — does “Minari” have to have before its story is properly understood as quintessentially American?
The HFPA — a group of international journalists, based in Southern California — made a similar gesture when, last year, it designated Lulu Wang’s “The Farewell” as a foreign language film. Most of the film’s dialogue is in Chinese; Wang and her lead actor, Awkwafina, are both Americans. The movie follows a Chinese American woman who goes to China to visit her grandmother, and depicts the forces of globalization and migration and their effects on an immigrant family. In this context, Chinese is a cross-national — not foreign — language. Yet the film’s categorization renders Chinese as inextricably foreign. By that standard, how should we view “Call Me By Your Name,” for example, a movie about a family of Italian-speaking American intellectuals summering in Lombardy? Or “Inglorious Basterds,” which features German and French, is set almost entirely in various European locales? Or “Babel,” which uses five different languages? The first two were nominated for a Golden Globe in the Best Motion Picture category and the last won in that category.
Bong Joon-Ho’s “Parasite,” in winning the Oscars for both Best Picture and Best International Feature Film, might seem to disrupt the film industry’s problematic categories and implicit values. The success of “Parasite” — and, in the pop music realm, the wild popularity of BTS and Blackpink — was the culmination of decades of effort by South Korea to develop a globally competitive entertainment industry, with all the muscle of the 10th-largest economy in the world. (“Minari,” by contrast, is a Korean American film, made by an American production company on a small budget.) Earlier in 2020, that dual award for “Parasite” suggested the media and entertainment business might discard its problematic need to pigeonhole non-English-language films and consider them separately from the mainstream.
But of course, “international” — with all its connotations of being willfully and powerfully mobile and sophisticated — has a very different weight for non-Americans than “foreign” does for minorities in the United States. “Foreign” casts people, as well as their stories and languages, as strange, small and marginal. When one is “international,” one has the capital and the clout just to be the “best” as well. When one is “foreign,” one is, too often, inaudible and invisible.
Or, in the case of “Minari,” and the story of immigrants who speak Korean, one can be nominated for an award and simultaneously be told that one does not fully belong.